Research, collaborate, streamline

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The focus of the current government is to reduce the UK’s budget deficit – and whilst the government is currently committed to safeguarding existing school budgets, there will undoubtedly be difficult decisions ahead.

As all school business managers will know, when faced with a deficit there are essentially two options increase your income streams or reduce your expenditure.

Ever since budgets were first transferred to schools (1988 – Local Management of Schools) the trend has been to devolve more power and responsibility to governors, heads and the senior leadership teams in schools. A current trend within education is to encourage self-improving schools systems across all activities – not just learning but also governance and financial management. Research suggests (M Barber et al 2010) that excellence in education is more likely to be achieved when the conditions support innovation and creative leadership within mature structures and systems. Of course many may argue that with the changes to structures and systems over the last 5 years that we have yet to achieve the required maturity. However, across the country there a many experienced federations and trusts operating over a number of schools where the conditions are met.

In the world we live in today the only constant is change; and in many cases fast paced change. What worked yesterday may not be meeting your needs today and certainly will not do so tomorrow.

As school leaders it is our duty to assess where we are currently and where we want to be in the future, only then will we know how to get there. School budgets may be safeguarded, and a proposed national funding formula may help iron out some of the current anomalies in the amount individual schools receive; but there still are significant challenges. There are many unfunded cost pressures on schools; including rises in contributions to staff pensions, changes to national insurance, recruitment pressures pushing up staff costs and additional compliance costs. Some commentators have estimated that this is in effect a 7.50% to 10.0% cuts in funds available to deliver learning. How are you going to face these challenges?

Whether your setting is local authority maintained or an academy it is your responsibility to manage the improvements that will be required to drive up standards and deliver greater value for money.

Some thoughts that you may be considering might include:

  • Full collaboration with your school partners – going beyond sharing inset days and ideas about teaching and learning. You need to consider formal collaboration on procurement and shared services that deliver more for less. Coasting schools are likely to be encouraged to consider the benefits of joining an existing multi-academy trust (MAT); but other models of collaboration are open to all schools.
  • Using more technology. In many schools there is limited use of technology to improve processes. For example, whilst governors and trust directors need to have assurance regarding the state of the finances, in most schools procurement involves too many people, duplication of processes and too much paper. Systems exist to manage the process from purchase order to payment without a single piece of paper and superior controls to those used in many schools.
  • Challenging existing staff structures. What staff does the school need to employ and what might be better outsourced? How do you ensure that all costs incurred outside the classroom, be that leadership overheads or support staff, add value to what happens inside the classroom?

Many of the challenges schools face require knowledge and experience that many not be present in school. Whilst collaboration will help increase the in-house skills at your disposal, this may still not be enough. There are a number of niche companies able to assist with your tendering processes, energy brokering and financial management; and many new companies are entering the market. A company’s track record of dealing with similar work in similar settings should be a key consideration in your selection.

Yes there are many challenges ahead – but you are not alone. Personally the territory you will be asked to travel might be uncharted – but we live in a digital world brimming with information, data and advice. Someone knows what is likely to lie ahead of you; has had experience of something similar.

‘Collaboration’ is the current watchword in education. Engage with other academies and local schools, but also remember that some of the challenges you face with systems and processes go beyond education. Extend your search for partners and get expert assistance in areas that you need support.

I was going to end this blog with ‘good luck’; but it’s not luck its ‘good leadership’.


SBS provides expert advice on all aspects of education finance, from service desk support to complete financial management. Learn more about how we can help your school.

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